This 4th of July: The dawn of a new 'independents' day
A record-high 38 percent of Americans now describe themselves as independents. Republican and Democratic party leaders ignore this growing lack of party allegiance at their peril. Whichever party shifts to accommodate more moderate voters first will survive and even thrive.
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Both parties need independent voters to win. But have the parties forgotten this?Skip to next paragraph
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Campaign strategists have a simple recipe for success. They divide voters into three camps: ours, theirs, and up-for-grabs. Winning campaigns pay just enough attention to their committed voters to keep them happy and get them out to vote; they avoid voters who are solidly in the opponent's camp, and they focus most of their efforts on those most likely to be persuaded – like political independents.
When forced to choose between parties, most independents will pick a side. But the lack of willingness to align with a party suggests the parties have an image problem.
Consider this trend: Independents have surged and the parties have grown more polarized, yet underlying ideological views have changed little. In Pew Survey polls from 2000 to 2012, between 35 and 36 percent said they were conservative; about the same amount said they were moderate; and 18 to 22 percent said they were liberals.
The biggest defections appear to be from the Republican Party, as the recent rise in numbers of independents over the past decade has come almost entirely from conservatives and moderates (including some Democrat moderates).
Parties are not particularly popular, even in their own ranks. A majority of Democrats and those who lean Democratic say their party is doing only a fair or poor job of standing up for its traditional positions. Republicans and those leaning Republican are even more dissatisfied.
The growing lack of party allegiance and the high levels of dissatisfaction are trends that current party leaders ignore at their peril.
One need only look at the changing control of Congress over recent elections to see what happens when voters grow dissatisfied. In 2006, voters threw out Republicans; in 2010 they gave House Democrats the boot. Voter anger could flip control again.
Republican and Democratic party elites should be running scared. Polling data suggest and history confirms that American voters prefer broad-based parties that govern from the ideological middle, not from the extremes.
Whichever political party does the math first and shifts to accommodate more moderate voters will be well positioned to survive and even thrive in coming decades.